Pakistani smugglers heed message - EXCLUSIVE -
Publisher: The Australian
Author: AMANDA HODGE, SOUTH ASIA CORRESPONDENT
Story date: 10/12/2012
Language: English

PEOPLE-SMUGGLERS and asylum-seekers in Pakistan are being discouraged by the prospect of offshore processing and mass drownings, according to smuggling agents in the gateway city of Karachi.

While the number of asylum-seekers from Pakistan has dropped off in recent months, there is scant evidence of a similar deterrent effect in Afghanistan, where the head of the UN's refugee agency says Australia's policy shift caused a ``huge mess''. Hundreds of aspiring refugees have been queuing futilely outside the headquarters hoping to take advantage of the simultaneous increase in Afghan refugee acceptances.

And the unprecedented surge of asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka – more than 3500 in the past three months – has prompted Foreign Minister Bob Carr to lead a high-level delegation to Colombo next week to plot joint action to stop the boats.

But, in Karachi, several agents have told The Australian that asylum-seeker traffic to Australia has declined through the Karachi International Airport terminal since August, when the federal government announced a crackdown on boat arrivals, including the reintroduction of the Pacific Solution.

Small groups of agitated travellers, easily spotted by their minimal luggage and the central Asian features that have made Hazara Shias prey for Sunni Muslim extremists, are still visible almost nightly on the flights to Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. But business has slowed since news broke that the Nauru and Manus Island processing centres were reopening.

``Until recently there would be 20 to 25 people on the Thai Airways flight,'' Karachi-based Hazara travel agent Hussain (not his real name) said. ``Now just one or two people will go (on each flight) and they're the ones who don't listen to anyone.''

Across the border, Afghan asylum-seekers are said to be still leaving by the dozens each day.

UNHCR Kabul chief Peter Nicolaus said it was Australia's intention to increase its refugee quota that most piqued the interest of Australia's Afghan community, which quickly relayed that to relatives back home, many of whom feared the December 2014 withdrawal of Western troops.

Within weeks the UNHCR's Kabul office was inundated with Afghans who erroneously believed the asylum-seekers' loss would be their gain.

``Where we had a problem – and it was a mess – was the information did not come over well,'' Dr Nicolaus said. ``People were informed, mainly by Chinese whispers via relatives in Australia, that Australia had increased its quotas and you should now apply.''

Australia did increase its annual refugee intake quota from 13,750 to 20,000, and will give priority to Afghans awaiting resettlement in Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia. But only those who have crossed international borders to flee persecution can be recognised by the UNHCR as refugees, not Afghans still in Afghanistan.

``That got completely lost in the message,'' Dr Nicolaus said.

The outgoing chief welcomed Australia's decision to boost its intake of registered Afghan refugees, notwithstanding his misgivings over a January 2011 three-way agreement between Australia, Afghanistan and the UNHCR to allow for the return from Australia of rejected asylum-seekers.

``In two years nobody has been sent back based on this agreement so the Australians must be somewhat disappointed,'' he said.

(The Federal Court recently granted a stay of deportation to two Afghan Hazaras).

``Now it is reacting again by saying `look we are resorting to some measures which have a deterrent effect','' he added.

That's not to say the switch to offshore processing of asylum-seekers has killed the trade.

Syed Zahir Shah Zaidi, a Karachi-based Hazara man who identified himself with a smirk as a ``social worker'', said that, on the day we met, a group of six people was due to leave that night on a Kuala Lumpur-bound flight.

There were many thousands more still waiting in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Indonesia to complete their journey, he added.

Mr Zaidi said he went to Indonesia last December on behalf of Pakistan's Hazara community in Quetta to identify the bodies of those recovered from a heavily overloaded boat that sank off the Javanese coast as it attempted to ferry 260 passengers to Australia.

Armed with a 10-page manifest of asylum-seeker names, photographs, identifying marks and features – as well as phone numbers for anxious relatives – the trip was traumatic and futile.

At one Surabaya hospital he saw hospital staff walking over dozens of dead bodies ``like they were rice. There were more than 100 Pakistanis on the boat but we only found seven,'' he said.

Subsequent mass drownings, in June, August and November have devastated besieged Shia Muslim communities in Quetta and Parachinar, a Shi'ite region in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area encircled and frequently attacked by hostile Sunni militants.

Hazaras have for more than a century sought refuge in Quetta from successive genocides and pogroms in Afghanistan.

But many thousands of Hazaras have fled the now-murderous capital of Balochistan Province in recent years because of frequent target killings by Sunni militants.

``No government can stop this,'' said Mr Zaidi of the Hazara flight to safety. ``It is better Australia make a legal way for Hazaras whose lives are in the red zone by setting up skills centres in Quetta to help people migrate legally.

``If they say `we want 100 plumbers, 100 drivers, 50 shoemakers' we could make them skilled and send them to Australia.''

Quetta has technical training centres but they were in parts of the city that are ``no-go zones'' for Hazaras, he said. Those who remained were almost entirely confined to two suburbs on the east and west of the city.

``When a person goes from here illegally they pay about $18,000 – $10,000 to the agent and then the rest to bribe this and bribe that,'' he said.

``We are ready to pay that $10,000 to the Australian government for education, for visas.''
 

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